Cinema Dispatch: Life of the Party

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Life of the Party and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Ben Falcone

This isn’t the most object thing to say as a film critic, but there really are times where the success of a movie or the people behind it makes me hate the end product just a little bit more.  Adam Sandler’s entire career is based around this, and absolute dreck like Fist Fight and Daddy’s Home 2 are bad enough that their success only intensifies what I found lacking in them; especially with Daddy’s Home 2 which was so bad AND so successful that it pretty much poisoned the first film for me which I thought wasn’t THAT bad and somewhat enjoyable.  I bring this up because I get the feeling that many people feel that way about Melissa MicCarthy and her movies, and yet I’ve never had anything but praise for her as a performer.  Okay, I wasn’t a fan of Bridesmaids and I still haven’t seen Identity Thief or Tammy, but her track record has been pretty strong as far as I’m concerned and even her low end efforts like The Boss are still better than plenty other comedies that don’t seem to attract as much ire; not to mention the absolute shit storm that blew up over that AMAZING Ghostbusters movie!  Now she’s back to “ruin” yet another one of your treasured eighties films as this movie seems to be an update on Old School starring Rodney Dangerfield, and I hope the next film she does has her working on a golf course or traveling back in time to meet her parents in high school; just to see how far she can piss off “passionate” fanboys who can’t stand to see their original films (THAT AREN’T GOING ANYWHERE!!) being updated for a new audience!  Does this latest effort manage to do for college frat humor what the new Ghostbusters did for comedian driven adventure films, or is this a disappointingly low effort outing from one of the most talented comedians of our time?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with Deanna Miles (Melissa McCarthy) dropping off her daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her final year of college which SHOULD be a celebratory day… but it all goes to hell when her jerk of a husband Dan (Matt Walsh) informs her on the ride home that he’s divorcing her, he’s already seeing someone, and he’s gonna sell the house.  Well that stinks!  What the heck is she gonna do to support herself now that her husband is gone and she hasn’t worked in years; not to mention that she never finished college which closes her off from most job opportunities!  Wait a minute… COLLEGE!  THAT’S IT!!  She’ll enroll in the same college as her daughter to finish up that final year and get her degree in… Archeology!  Because the market is bursting at the seams for someone with THOSE qualifications I guess!  Oh, that’s not important!  The important thing is that Maddie’s mom is gonna be at the same place as her and will be SUPER embarrassing!  Well actually, Maddie’s sisters as the Sorority (Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, and Jessie Ennis) take to her rather quickly and she soon becomes the talk of campus; even getting invited to parties and hooking up with sexy stud Jack (Luke Benward)!  Oh, and I guess she’s got to attend her archeology classes taught by Chris Parnell, but forget that!  It’s time to put the MOM back in MOMentous College Experiences as she teaches the youngsters about being responsible adults and they in turn teach her how to cut loose!  Will Deanna manage to pass her final classes to get that degree, or will the pitfalls of college life distract her from reaching her dreams?  Will Maddie gain a newfound respect for her mother now that they’re spending so much time together, and what will the divorce do to her relationship with her as well as her dad?  Will Melissa McCarthy retain her title as one of the most bankable stars in the country, even when she’s doing a cheap college film!?

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“Take a shot every time I cross a hundred million at the box office!!”

Comedy is always a hard genre to quantify and if I look at this on a nuts and bolts film making level, well it comes up pretty short.  Structurally, it’s an utter mess with no natural flow between scenes once we get past the initial premise, and even that part feels noticeably rushed and truncated.  We never get a sense of Melissa McCarthy’s life before the MAJOR LIFE EVENT since it occurs so quickly after she’s introduced, and The overall arc of this film is so vaguely defined (graduate from college) that even the facsimile of a plot is barely present as the film devolves into a series of sketches; much more so than a lot of other movies accused of doing the same.  Hell, this is basically Monty Python and the Holy Grail levels of disconnected nonsense, only if they didn’t bother to team back up to find the grail until the last ten minutes, and even THAT is being a bit generous!  The thing is though, it works!  The breezy and unobtrusive narrative may not create a lot of tension and drama, but it allows for a variety of set pieces that in and of themselves are well written and rather hilarious; especially with such a strong supporting cast backing it up.  I don’t think it has as much staying power as previous McCarthy films like Ghostbusters or even the still pretty amazing Blockers from earlier in the year, but there are more than enough laughs to keep you entertained and to give you a reason to come back to the theater after seeing Avengers again and Deadpool for the third time.

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How the hell has she NOT been added to the MCU yet!?

So what sets this apart from other scattershot comedies that throw everything against the wall to see what sticks?  What is it about this film that actually DOES make most of the material work despite how fractured the narrative is and how disparate the individual pieces are?  Despite the lack of a proper narrative, it DOES have a fair amount of heart going throughout out it; mostly in regards to how the Sorority (including her daughter) warm up to her and accept her as one of their own; not as some sort of gimmick or trophy piece, but as someone who contributes to their dynamic and genuinely supports them.  Sure, it’s not a HUGE part of the movie, but it helps build up all the characters in this and makes you root for them even if they’re goals are rather vaguely defined.  The movie it reminds me most of is An Extremely Goofy Movie which would have been an ALL TIME CLASSIC if it wasn’t for the shameless X-Games product placement that took valuable screen time away from what worked about it.  And… the fact that it wasn’t as well written as the original… or as funny… but whatever!  The point is that that movie (and even more so its predecessor) managed to not only work jokes in at every possible moment but also told a rather compelling father and son story during it.  It’s certainly much looser here as the growth between Melissa McCarthy and her daughter is CLEARLY secondary to the jokes, but you get ENOUGH of a sense of that story going on that it helps make the comedy work that much more and makes it work that much better than most college movies.

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“I’m just a-YEARNIN’ for some LEARNIN’!  AIN’T THAT RIGHT!?”     “Well not anymore…”

Melissa McCarthy is certainly the star here, but the filmmakers assembled a delightfully strong cast of young female actors who bring so much to the material they’re given.  All the sorority sisters have great moments throughout, but I especially want to point out Gillian Jacobs who is absolutely brilliant as Helen; a woman who was in a coma for several years and is now in college basically because she doesn’t have anything else going on in her life.  I never got around to watching Community which seems to be the big thing she’s known for, but after seeing her in this and how well she plays this role, I might go back and check it out.  The humor will work better for some people than others (I didn’t find it offensive on any level but it is rather white/cis/het/etc despite its pretentions of being girl positive) but there were very few times that I managed to stop laughing at this thing which made up for any shortcomings the script might have had.

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The only thing more retro than the premise are these stock Mean Girl bullies!

Now I’m not gonna let this film off the hook COMPLETELY despite how much I genuinely liked it.  As much as the narrative shortcomings didn’t bother me for most of this movie, you can REALLY feel the script straining in the third act as it tries to find some semblance of a plot to wrap this whole thing up and it’s easily the weakest section of the movie.  When we’ve all of a sudden gotten a ticking clock and have to start finding ways to resolve the various subplots, things just start to feel cluttered as the scenes that would normally just be there for jokes start be stuffed with awkwardly inserted plot points; the least of which being a surprise celebrity cameo that doesn’t make any real sense and feels like a last minute addition at best.  There were also a few jokes that fell really flat (the Va-Google had a decent PREMISE but not a great execution, and there’s an extended drug use sequence that fell really flat), but I found the scenes in Chris Parnell’s classroom to be the most dampening as they aren’t especially funny and felt kind of like a plot cul-de-sac where you get the feeling that he had a much more important role to play but his most significant scenes were cut for time.  There’s an extended gag about Melissa McCarthy being afraid of public speaking (a character trait that doesn’t make much sense considering what we saw in a party scene from earlier) that felt kind of undercooked and awkward and only made the classroom scenes feel that much more perfunctory.  As much as I did genuinely enjoy the comedy in this movie, there are points where it falls a bit flat as Melissa McCarthy feels too much like a caricature to really get behind (almost as if she’s doing a bit from Saturday Night Live than someone you can believe as a real person) which means that it takes a little too long for the movie to get going and hit its stride.

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See, this is what happens when you overwork your editor!

I really did enjoy this movie and got a huge amount of laughs out of it, but it’s far from perfect.  I think Blockers is still better on pretty much every level, from its writing, pacing, message, and number of laughs, but I certainly had a great time in this and recommending you check this out if you can.  Should you see it in theaters?  Eh… I’d go with yes.  If the humor hits you the way that it hit me it’ll be worth the ticket price, and there’s not much else to see anyway since Marvel is gonna be taking up the top two spots for at least another two weeks.  Heck, if they wanted number three as well, they should just re-release Black Panther as I’m sure that would STILL make another fifty million at the box office!  If you wait to see this when it get to home release, you’re not missing out on THAT much, but if you’re looking for something to watch that ISN’T a big budget spectacle, well this might do the trick!  That is until we get Melissa McCarthy cast as Spider-Woman!  At that point, there’ll be NO escaping the cinematic dominance of the MCU!!

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